Hinge of History: Rethinking the Great War

For those who like to speculate on the “What Ifs” of History there are an abundance of books under the heading of “Counterfactual” Literature.  These works build on an imaginary premise- What If Napoleon had not invaded Russia. What If the South had won the Civil War. What If Oswald had Missed etc. – and proceed to tell readers intriguing tales of how different the world might therefore be.

Beyond simple entertainment this brand of fiction provides a useful antidote to deterministic views of History which hold that whatever actually happened was inevitable.

In 2014 we are commencing the Centennial of the First World War- a cataclysm of a proportion utterly unimaginable to the generation that stumbled into it.  It is also the event that unleashed the forces that made the Twentieth Century the Age of Totalitarian Horror, the consequences of which still define our world today.

By rejecting historical inevitability it is possible to examine the events that unfolded in the summer of 1914 and realize that very plausible alternative scenarios could have allowed the world to totally avoid Hitler, Stalin, the Holocaust and a host of related catastrophes.

The English novelist L.P. Hartley astutely noted that “the Past is like a Foreign Country; they do things differently There”.  Still it is very difficult a century later to understand how a nineteen year old Serbian terrorist could assassinate an Austrian Archduke and thereby catapult the entire world into a conflict that few wanted, most thought unlikely, and none foresaw as the all-consuming fire that ensued.

Historians seeking causes would cite Great Power rivalries, conflicting alliances, nationalism, or militarism, but in the final analysis Europe would slip into the abyss because a handful of men made decisions which collectively proved fatal to the peace of Europe.

Several times prior to 1914 the statesmen had gone to the brink but managed to pull back, but this time they failed.  As a result in four years ten million soldiers died on the battlefield, an even greater number of civilians perished, four great empires collapsed in Revolutionary Chaos, and even the “winners” of the war could not escape the certain truth that no victory could remotely justify its appalling cost.

Unlike the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic Wars which gave Europe a Century of Peace by establishing  a “Balance of Power” involving all major nations the Versailles Conference following World War I excluded the defeated powers from all negotiations, and produced a “Victor’s Peace” that formally  assigned all responsibility for causing the war to  Germany.

By excluding Germany and making a pariah of the fledgling Russian Communist State, Versailles insured that these two nations- Europe’s largest-would make common cause and upon regaining their strength form a cynical alliance that would be the immediate springboard for a renewed World War in 1939.

Had this “Devil’s Alliance” between the Twin Monsters Hitler and Stalin and the powerful and barbaric regimes they led endured, the consequences for the World are almost too terrible to contemplate.  Thankfully that nightmare scenario can only be realized in some future “Counterfactual History”.

Without doubt the most devastating casualty of the War was the sense of purpose and confidence of Western Civilization.  Even before the conflict was over thoughtful people on both sides recognized that the West was in the process of committing Civilizational Suicide.  Along with millions of lives, centuries of progress were being fed into the maw of the horrific machinery of death best symbolized by the blasted landscape of the Western Front with its trenches, mud, barbed wire, monstrous artillery barrages, and remorseless machine guns stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby  one of his characters remarks “you know, we never could do that Western Front thing again”.  The very titles of the great war novels- Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms,  Ford’s Parade’s End, Graves  Goodbye to All That,  Remarque’s  All Quiet on the Western Front – are reflective of the massive trauma and disillusionment spawned by what was hopefully but most inaccurately called “The War to End All Wars”.

Though its role proved decisive the United States came quite late to the “Great War” and thus never felt the sense of self-mutilation experienced by Europeans.  Today we wonder why Europeans often see the world differently than Americans do. In part it’s because the Yanks weren’t “Over There” for battles such as The Marne, The Somme, Vimy Ridge, Gallipoli, Verdun, Flanders and countless other killing fields.  Thus they see things with different eyes, and are haunted by other ghosts.

These shadows yet overhang our world. Santayana was right: “What is Past is Prologue”.

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William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Times, Denver Post and Human Events

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